Online Shopping – A Minefield for Unwary Consumers

We’re all susceptible to the traps and pitfalls encountered during our abbreviated stay on this mortal coil, none more so than those of us who dare venture into the realm of online shopping ~ caveat emptor (let the buyer beware!)

angry man- smallerWarning – Rant Follows!

I deal with several online stores myself, you know the ones I mean, with names along the lines of GreatDeals and TopBargains. I operate this way purely for convenience, for a lazy sod like me there’s nothing better than ‘delivered to your door’. One of the things that irks me no end is how these vendors fiddle with the handling and delivery charges according to an item’s pricing. They’ll either sell an item at an inflated purchase price with discounted handling and delivery charges OR at a discounted purchase price with inflated delivery and handling charges. Either way, the bottom line will generally be near enough to identical.

For example; I recently received an email catalog trumpeting $2.00 handling and delivery fees storewide. Included among the featured products was an item priced at $109.00, plus, of course, the $2.00 delivery fee, totaling out at $111.00. Just this morning I received another email catalog from the same vendor advertizing the exact same item at a super-dooper, fantasmagorical discount price of $89.00. How much was the handing and delivery charge? $21.95, which tots up to $110.95.

I’ve seen far worse examples of this price juggling; on one occasion I came across a nice Swarovski crystal pendant I thought ‘she who must be obeyed’ might like, priced at a very reasonable $16.95. When I checked the delivery and handling fee, it was an excessive $18.95. I sent an email to that vendor pointing out that delivery charges should NEVER exceed an item’s purchase price.

The one thing I’ve learned – regardless of which way you go, either discounted sale price or reduced delivery fees, the perception of saving money is a fallacy.

Warranty – What Warranty?

warrantyI tend to shop only for less expensive items online or, if I am looking for a more expensive item, I’m only interested in those which include a manufacture’s warranty. Why? Because in most cases, the vendor’s warranty is worthless. Why should the consumer have to pay postage charges to return an item that is broken through no fault of their own? In many cases, the cost of return postage is prohibitive, it just isn’t economical, and this is exactly what the vendors rely on.

And how about some of the warranty stipulations, such as the item must be returned in its original packaging. What if an item with a one year warranty breaks at the 11 month point, who is still going to have all the original packaging at hand?

I even read a warranty stipulation from one vendor stating that the item must be returned in its original UNDAMAGED packaging. Seriously!! All those little sealed plastic bags, undamaged? What about items entrapped inside plastic casing, many of those require nothing less than a hammer and chisel to extricate the goods. I don’t believe I’ve ever unpacked a delivered item without damaging the packaging in some way, it’s nigh on impossible. What this particular vendor was actually saying is… we don’t have a warranty!

The moral of the story, and most stories relating to issues involving online purchases – always read the fine print, the devil is in the details!

Overall though, I must say I’ve enjoyed a fairly happy relationship with online vendors. Not that I haven’t experienced my fair share of hiccups along the way, however, I’ve generally found the vendors eager to please; whether that be from fear of harming their reputation or potential repercussions emanating from our strict consumer protection laws here in Australia, I really don’t know.

Live Support & The Language Barrier

live-chat-support-servicesI don’t wish to bore you but I must relate one particular incident which occurred just recently. I ordered two watches online as Christmas gifts for two of my grandsons. The watches were individually branded with the logo and name of each grandson’s favorite football team. When the watches arrived, they were both the same and neither was branded with the football teams I had selected. I contacted a support rep from the store via online chat and it was pretty obvious from the outset that the rep struggled with English… what follows is the ensuing conversation.

  • Support Rep:  Hi, How may I help you today.
  • Me: (I explain the problem in detail).
  • Support Rep: So you receive the item but when it arrive, it is faulty?
  • Me: No, they are the wrong items. Not what we ordered and paid for.
  • Support Rep: So what is problem?
  • Me: (I go through the entire explanation again)
  • Support Rep: So I may get a better understanding of how the item differs from the item ordered, please send me a clear photo of the unit to [email address], and include your name and order number in the subject line.
  • Me: You must be joking. What do you need photos for? The watches are still in their boxes and plastic sealed. It’s quite simple, you sent the wrong items, not the items we ordered.
  • Support Rep: If we have the photos, then it help us expedite the time frame of the process.
  • Me: Why would I tell you they are the wrong items if they are not? What could I possibly hope to gain from lying about it? You sent the wrong items… nothing could be simpler.
  • Support Rep: Okay, I got that. It’s fine if you do not provide photos. I will proceed with a collection order but we’ll need to check that one first before we can provide a replacement. You like a replacement for that one, right?
  • Me: There are TWO watches. Yes, I want replacements, the two watches I ordered in the first place.
  • Support Rep: I will go ahead and process a return voucher for your item.
  • Me: Thank you (although I’m still a little concerned that the rep keeps referring to “item” rather than “items”)

Shortly thereafter, I received a prepaid postage label via email for the return package. In the end, the correct replacement watches arrived post haste, even before we mailed the wrong watches back. So, although sorting it out involved a somewhat frustrating exchange, the end result was entirely favorable.

Do you shop online? I’m sure many of you who do will have similar tales to tell, feel free to share via the comments.


8 thoughts on “Online Shopping – A Minefield for Unwary Consumers”

  1. Jim, I look for the real bargains, which often includes FREE shipping. They are out there, trust me, but one needs to be patient. And yes, only on high price items would I purchase an additional warranty (which covers the full two way shipping cost), Mindblower!

    1. I think the online shopping scene might be a little different here in Oz MB. We don’t have any mega online stores such as Amazon and Newegg here, only a plethora of much smaller online stores, each one pretty much the same as the next.

  2. Hi Jim, interested in your polite statement:  “I contacted a support rep from the store via online chat and it was pretty obvious from the outset that the rep struggled with English.”

    Some years ago I had a problem with McAfee.  Basically, their update screwed my PC.  After many emails to and fro, I became convinced that I was either communicating with some “word parsing” software (remember Liza?) or I was talking to guys with NO knowledge who were working to a set script.  
    The dialogue (from them) ended when I asked them to prove that I was talking to real person by telling me who was the previous President of the USA (the answer then was Bush). In spite of three chase up emails, I heard no more until renewal time, when they started emailing me.  
    I replied each time with a copy of all the correspondence.  The final time I warned them that if the contacted me again, I would copy the whole correspondence to all the anti-virus suppliers.  I heard no more.
    Except within the year, I read that Intel had acquired them.  Plus point for AMD!

  3. Whist this may be the situation in Australia it is different in the UK. The buyers contract is with the online vendor and whilst a guarantee by the manafacturer may be offered, it often promises less than the statutory rights that buyers in the UK have against the vendor. Many vendors try to hide behind manufacturer warranty and put people with complaints off at the first stage (especially after he first month) – the advice here is almost always to pursue a case with the vendor however resistant they may be. Also vendors can be held responsible for products after the traditional “warranty period” expires – especially if you can prove that the breakdown of whatever it is, was due to a manufacturing fault/defect present at the time of purchase. For example if you buy a £600 oven it is reasonable to expect that it will last for a reasonable period of service……a court may decide that this is longer than 12 months especially if the fault is due to a poor component and there have been other examples. People worry far too much about warranties here when consumer law is stronger. These companies rely on the fact that most consumers cannot be bothered to pursue a claim. It surprising how quickly they sometimes change their tune when you mention a claim in the small claims court. In the UK and Europe the law is largely on the side of the consumer. If you order online then you have 14 days to inspect and reject goods – statements like “must be returned unopened” do not count for this statutory right if a person would need to open the packaging to inspect the goods. Also unless it is stated in their terms and conditions at the point of sale that the purchaser must pay the postage to return the goods then the vendor must accept responsibility for this and for the outgoing postage as well. The law would be unlikely to support a retailer insisting on charging postage for faulty goods.
    As with all legislation the devil is in the detail but UK/European law protects online purchases much more effectively than retail sales on the high street

  4. gbswales,

    We in Australia are also protected by laws which can over-ride warranties, etc; from vendors.
    For instance, ink cartridges bought online, or locally, and not ‘genuine’ ink for HP printers causes a message to be produced from HP via the printer, stating that using the ink will cause the warranty to be null and void.
    Our law over-rides HP in that the warranty must be honoured, and must be covered for two years, irrespective of the manufacturers warranty.
    Imagine buying a new car and the manufacturer insisted you use XYZ fuel otherwise the warranty would be discontinued.


    1. Yes, Australia’s consumer protection laws are right up there, more stringent than most other countries. Sounds like they may be pretty much in line with the U.K. However, there are two major problems:

      #1) Is that these protection laws are NOT well publicized (here anyway) so the majority of consumers remain blissfully unaware of their rights.
      #2) Is the inconvenience, hassle, call it what you will, of going through the mill, especially over a $10 or $20 purchase. Many consumers decide it just isn’t worth the angst.

      When returning goods to a bricks and mortar store, in a face to face situation, the consumer has the upper hand. Whereas, a similar situation online will generally involve a faceless, sometimes nameless entity who may or may not respond.

  5. I have done a lot of online shopping in the past. I tend to stick with the big name places like Sears, Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, New Egg, Tiger Direct,Office Max etc.

    I have purchased from eBay but they are a little more risky 50/50 chance of getting something that works. If you do it’s a great price, if not it’s an expensive paper weight.

    For the most part, any problems with a purchase had to do with the shipper and not the seller. With eBay you really don’t know the seller.

    Amazon and Best Buy partners are good at some things too.

  6. I like your “what is” (referred to in this article) site but I only see entries by some strange random assortment of dates. Is this site updated regularly?

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